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The site occupied by the church of St John the Baptist, Stanwick has been a sacred place since long before the present church was built. It is situated within the ancient Brigantean fortress now known as Stanwick Camp and it may have been a religious site before it became a Christian place of worship. The circular churchyard (though a section has been cut off by the road) indicates a pre-Conquest burial ground and the outline of a Saxon church has been found near to the present church. There are also several Saxon and Viking remains including a cross shaft, and other carvings which have simply been used as ordinary building stones in the walls.
The present building has substantial parts that can be dated to C13 (tower, main doorway, east window of south aisle) and a number of old grave slabs have been incorporated into the porch indicating details (though not the names) about the persons whose graves they covered. Several of these indicate that the church was in the control of the Knights Templar at one time. The fact that there are so many stone grave slabs here is not so much an indication of the wealth of the area as the fact that stone from local quarries was so readily available.
From C14 to C17 Stanwick was owned by the Catterick family but in 1638 it was conveyed to a Smithson grandson. In the church is a splendid monument to the first of the several Hugh Smithsons and his wife, Dorothy. On the wall not quite above the Smithson tomb is a helmet and gauntlets, the funeral sign of a knight with military connections. Hugh was a Royalist during the Civil War and may have fought in Charles' army. The original helmet and gauntlets were made in the 1630's. Those in the church are replicas made in about 2010, the originals being in the Royal Armories in Leeds. It is not known whether this armour was worn by Sir Hugh or was acquired to hang in the church. The gauntlets obviously came from different pairs as they are both for the left hand.
The great grandson of the Hugh Smithson commemorated in marble, married Elizabeth Seymour, heiress to the Earldom of Northumberland, took the historic Northumberland 'Percy' family name and became Earl of Northumberland. His illegitimate son left his fortune to be used to establish the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. The Percy family as Earls, and later Dukes, of Northumberland held the Stanwick estate until the 1920s when the estate was broken up.
From 1865 to 1911 Stanwick was ruled by Eleanor, dowager duchess Northumberland and it was she who had the church restored by Anthony Salvin in 1868. Like many Victorian restorations, Salvin's at Stanwick rather overdid it and many old features were lost as a result but the C19 font, still has a C17 cover (much restored) and several memorials and hatchments were retained. Since 1990 St John's has been in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust though the church yard still belongs to the parish.
If you visit St John's at Stanwick you will find it a peaceful and evocative place. People have worshipped here for over two thousand years. Please help to keep up that tradition.
More information on the building is available in the church and a churchyard plan and grave list are also available there for reference. (See our page on Parish Registers and Genealogical Research).
The hamlet of Stanwick St John, along with Carlton, has its own village website that gives information about the settlements there, past and present.
It can seem difficult to find Stanwick St John (see map here) but it is signed from both Forcett and Aldbrough. As you approach the lane end the church can be seen in the hollow by the bridge across the Mary Wild Beck (sorry, we don't know the origin of that name. Perhaps if you know any stories about that name you'd let us know.)